Diebenkorn, Richard Clifford

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Diebenkorn, Richard Clifford

(b. 22 April 1922 in Portland, Oregon; d. 30 March 1993 in Berkeley, California), major mid-century modernist artist. After working for more than twenty years in loose, figurative, and abstract styles, he developed in his Ocean Park series one of the most luminous and fully realized groups of nonobjective paintings produced by an American.

The only child of Richard Clifford Diebenkorn, a sales executive, and Dorothy Stephens, Diebenkorn moved to San Francisco when he was two. His grandmother, Florence Stephens, who became a lawyer later in life and was a short story writer and a cultural affairs organizer on the radio, spent summers with the artist when he was a boy and introduced him to Arthurian legends and English history through the illustrated books of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth.

After graduating from Lowell High School in San Francisco in 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford University, majoring in art. He was attracted to the paintings of Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, and Edward Hopper. As an undergraduate he painted landscapes and urban scenes of local areas. On 16 June 1943 he married Phyllis Gilman, a fellow student. That year he was called up by the Marine Corps (having enlisted in 1942). During his two-year stint his assignments brought him to Parris Island, South Carolina; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Quantico, Virginia; Camp Pendleton, California; as well as Hawaii. While in Virginia he often visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and in California he came to know the work of the abstract expressionists William Baziotes and Robert Motherwell. His daughter was born in May 1945 and his son in the spring of 1947.

In late 1946 and early 1947, Diebenkorn stayed at the art colony at Woodstock, New York. He also met the abstract expressionists Baziotes, Mark Rothko, and Bradley Walker Tomlin in New York City. In 1947 he moved to Sausalito (north of San Francisco) and began teaching at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He met the California modernist artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff, who were instructors at the school, and with whom he would be closely associated during his figurative period beginning in 1956. After receiving an M.F.A. degree from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque in 1951, he taught for a year at the University of Illinois at Urbana. In 1953 he met the abstract expressionist Franz Kline. From January 1955 until June 1960 he taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts and from the fall of 1961 until 1966 at the San Francisco Art Institute. He was also a guest of the Soviet Artists Congress and was able to see the Henri Matisse collection at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. In the summer of 1966 he traveled to southern France and Germany and in the fall was appointed professor of art at the University of California at Los Angeles. For this position Diebenkorn moved from Berkeley, where he had lived since 1953, to the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica, taking over the studio of the color-field painter Sam Francis. He remained in Ocean Park until 1988, when he moved to Healdsburg in northern California.

Diebenkorn, a lean, well-proportioned man who wore a mustache, received his first one-man show in November 1952 at the Paul Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles. By the 1970s, although working far from the center of the art world in New York City, Diebenkorn was recognized as an artist of national, and even international, importance. From February to March 1974 a retrospective exhibition of his drawings was held at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Another major retrospective exhibition, which traveled widely through the country, originated in November 1976 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

Diebenkorn was awarded honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1975 and from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1982. In May 1985 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Diebenkorn’s work falls neatly into three periods. After a brief representational phase while at Stanford, as seen in Palo Alto Circle (1943), in which the rows of buildings are rendered in the manner of Edward Hopper, he worked in an abstract expressionist format until 1955. His turn to modernism was brought on partly by his exposure to the A. E. Gallatin Collection, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he studied the catalog with its reproductions of works by Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Joan Miró, and Hans Arp for many years. His work from this period was completely nonobjective, with some canvases heavily painted in a gestural manner, containing looping lines or ovular shapes reminiscent of Miró. Other works, which were more planar, suggested the influence of Matisse. A late work of the period, Berkeley No. 8 (1954), contains strong diagonal lines breaking up the continuity of the surface. At this time Diebenkorn was strongly impressed with Chaim Soutine’s turbulent landscapes, which he saw reproduced in a book on the artist.

The summer of 1955 marked a turning point, a catharsis, as the artist felt, “I came to mistrust my desire to explode the picture. . . . Something was missing in the process. I sensed an emptiness as though I were a performer.” He produced some paintings of still lifes in interiors showing knives, scissors, books, or other objects on tabletops (Interior with Book, 1959), but mostly Diebenkorn painted interiors containing one or two seated or standing figures quietly regarding one another. In these large paintings, forms were grandly displayed while precise detailing was avoided, and although there was an indication of perspective, the strength of the two-dimensional design was forcefully maintained as seen in Man and Woman in Large Room (1957).

The third period of the extensive (150 paintings in total) Ocean Park series was marked by a return to nonobjectivity that coincided with Diebenkorn’s twenty-one-year stay in Santa Monica. These majestic paintings with their broad, flat, carefully ruled-off rectangles of color owe a good deal to the earlier work of Matisse and Piet Mondrian. But the artist synthesized these influences into a formulation all his own. The soft colors, the sense of expansiveness of the rectangles, and the sense of atmosphere and wetness suggest his own environment of brightly lit skies over oceans, beachfront areas, and highways as seen in Ocean Park No. 66 (1973). Diebenkorn received the National Medal of Art in 1991. Having no part in the abstract expressionism centered in New York City, Diebenkorn produced a West Coast variant of modernism that rivaled it in quality. A national tour of the Richard Diebenkorn Exhibit, sponsored by J. P. Morgan and Company, began at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1997.

There is a catalog of Diebenkorn’s works, produced by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn, Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976 (1976), with essays by Robert T. Buck, Jr., Linda L. Cathcart, Gerald Nordland, and Maurice Tuchman. Another authoritative essay is John Elderfield, The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn (1988). An extensive chronology of the artist’s life may be found in Gerald Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn (1987). Another source is Jane Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn (1997), with essays by John Elderfield, Ruth E. Fine, and Jane Livingston.

Abraham A. Davidson